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Preview: Comments on Modern Medieval: Is Afghanistan "Medieval?" No.

Comments on Modern Medieval: Is Afghanistan "Medieval?" No.





Updated: 2018-04-06T11:55:03.873-04:00

 



If you are claiming a lot of our institutions have...

2011-03-13T03:52:53.907-04:00

If you are claiming a lot of our institutions have medieval roots, absolutely. Much more than they have classical ones, indeed.

And yes, pagan culture was different from Christian one in a lot of ways. But Roman paganism was quite like, for example, aspects of Shinto or Hinduism, so there are contemporary analogues.

But that was not my point. My point was about the operation of the Roman state. The idea that the state had a monopoly of legitimate coercion, that there was a standard set of laws, that coercion was applied by armed employees, the state supplied roads and other infrastructure, there was a welfare system paid by taxes. These are like their modern equivalents much more than they are like the medieval world and mindset.

Yes, the Italians picked out bits, hence the notion of "Renaissance". But if you look at things such as the structure of warfare, the level of state imposed order, etc, it was more like the Roman model than the medieval one. They were not completely having themselves on.



A society where [order] is provided by soldiers --...

2010-11-30T17:44:43.082-05:00

A society where [order] is provided by soldiers -- armed employees -- is different in quite profound ways than one there it is supplied by warriors -- fighters owing personal service...

One of the reasons Rome is much more accessible to modern lay folk than the medieval period is that, in some important institutional ways, it was much more like a modern state and society than a medieval one, even though it is much further back in time.


Rome is not "more like" a modern state. It's more like one of those "false friends" you learn about in foreign language courses -- words that look like English ones but have quite different meanings.

Rome only seems like that because (Italian) writers of the 15th/ 16th centuries picked out the characteristics they thought similar to their own city-states for lionization. Was a lupercalia (or bacchanalia) something so similar to today, especially considering how this "religious" act cannot be understood outside "culture" or "politics" -- which are all, indeed, anachronistic terms. Is that so much more unfamiliar than the system of government devised by the Franks of the 9th century? Or, better, the Parliament of the 14th?

And I never meant to say that all judgment is arbitrary but all judgment is nothing more than judgment. That doesn't mean that certain ones aren't better than others. If that means peering into an abyss of uncertainty when we're talking about the past, so be it. I'm comfortable enough just talking about the things we can know something about (by making educated judgments based on the evidence we do have) and then saying "we just don't know" about the rest.



Who said anything about peaceful or stable? My poi...

2010-11-30T02:38:13.954-05:00

Who said anything about peaceful or stable? My point was about the dominant form of coercion. A society where it is provided by soldiers -- armed employees -- is different in quite profound ways than one there it is supplied by warriors -- fighters owing personal service. Nor am I indulging in some quasi-Whig or Marxian "natural evolution" model. The point about medievalism is that it is warrior rule after something different. (I discuss what 'medieval' means here.)

One of the reasons Rome is much more accessible to modern lay folk than the medieval period is that, in some important institutional ways, it was much more like a modern state and society than a medieval one, even though it is much further back in time.

It is understandable that people look at Afghanistan's warlordism, at a country where some areas have never had electricity, and see something that reminds them of the medieval period. That this is not an "essential" characteristic but a fluctuating historical reality is true, but the resonance is still there. Consider this despatch from Michael Yon. Sure, the historical context needs to be understood but that includes the medieval resonances.

The point of Darwinian evolution is that it has a series of outcomes, but not a teleological end. The notion that 'evolution' implies teleology is so missing Darwin's point. To talk of evolution implies a causal process through time in a situation of constraints and opportunities. One can also call that 'history'.

As for the arbitrariness of judgement, that is just inviting people to dismiss all your moral comments as personal emoting. Surely your judgements are not arbitrary at all, but understandable results of knowledge and values.

As for judging Somalia in particular: people flee from Somalia to the West but not the other way around. That actually tells us something very important -- and not arbitrary.



Lorenzo, thanks for the thoughts. If a medieval ...

2010-06-25T09:37:05.059-04:00

Lorenzo, thanks for the thoughts.

If a medieval period is one of warrior rule...

Well, I wouldn't agree with that premise really. Prof. Muhlberger has some great thoughts at his blog about Afghanistan in the 1950s that destroys the "evolutionary" model of state development. Moreover, "medieval" is an arbitrary term, often used to denote a backwards movement -- in Europe, away from the "peace," "stability," and "learning" of Rome & Greece. But no one who knows anything about Rome or Greece would realistically argue that Rome and/ or Greece were particularly peaceful or stable. And anyone who knows anything about the European Middle Ages would say too, Europe was filled with learning during the Middle Ages.

If the US becomes less democratic, that is simply evolution? Surely we can make statements about whether a state functions or not (e.g. Somalia) and we can make statements about how well it is doing that according to various criteria.

It's not evolution (because that's what I'm arguing against generally) but change. It's probably "worse" from our perspective but not objectively worse. And yes, we can judge Somalia but we should at least acknowledge how arbitrary the foundations of that judgment are. Somalia doesn't function as a state but that's not, to my mind, objectively "good" or "bad" (and certainly not "medieval"). It is what it is, but acknowledging that doesn't mean people won't want to change things.



Governments exist. They change. To say that they &...

2010-06-25T07:04:34.039-04:00

Governments exist. They change. To say that they "succeed" or "fail" is to simply engage in another form of cultural relativism -- in most cases, to be Fukuyama-esque and say that the West is the ideal.
So, as long as there is some functioning state in, say, Iraq, is it is what it is? If the US becomes less democratic, that is simply evolution?
Surely we can make statements about whether a state functions or not (e.g. Somalia) and we can make statements about how well it is doing that according to various criteria.



Afghanistan is not a reprise or continuation of me...

2010-06-25T06:49:59.704-04:00

Afghanistan is not a reprise or continuation of medieval Latin Christendom, but some argument can be made that it never fully emerged from Islamic medievalism. If a medieval period is one of warrior rule (warriors being fighters who pay for their own equipment and were trained in family arranged or other individual circumstances and owe personal allegiance: thus distinct from tax-paid soldiers) then Afghanistan never fully emerged from medieval warlordism.

After all, the medieval period in Japan only ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1867, the medieval period in Turkey with abolition of tax privilege of the sipahi and their incorporation into the standard tax-paid army in 1828.



magistra, I don't think I'm going for &q...

2010-06-05T04:17:42.270-04:00

magistra,

I don't think I'm going for "wholesale cultural relativism." Medieval thinkers (which, of course, you realize is a tremendous generalization on its own) complained about the "failures" of their central authority because they compared it against an ideal of (in many cases) royal authority that they believed to have existed in the past.

10th- and 11th-century West Francia, for instance, were thought to be politically unstable because they longed for the perceived stability they experienced under the early Carolingians. I'd be happy saying that many people were overall worse off in the 10th century than they were in the early 9th but that's a different thing, I think, than whether or not the central authority "succeeded" or "failed." Governments exist. They change. To say that they "succeed" or "fail" is to simply engage in another form of cultural relativism -- in most cases, to be Fukuyama-esque and say that the West is the ideal. The situation of individuals within that state can be "better" or "worse" but that's a separate issue and should be dealt with separately.



You can argue against inaccurate labelling without...

2010-06-05T03:30:03.524-04:00

You can argue against inaccurate labelling without going for wholesale cultural relativism. Afghanistan isn't simply a mess because we think it is a mess. Medieval thinkers would also have complained about a central government that couldn't defend people within its own territory or maintain justice internally. A large part of the ideology of the modern state (since the French Revolution) has also been about the equal treatment of all before the law. I'd argue that countries that legally discriminate against large sections of the population (like women) are not modern and that that is something to be deplored.

I agree with you that medieval history can't provide a simple template of how to create a centralised state. But what I have usefully learned from study of the early Middle Ages is that an effective state is not a natural occurrance or a common phenomenon. As the Carolingians found, it is hard to create and maintain a state with even minimal forms of justice and peacefulness, given the forces pulling against this. 'Failed states' are not an exceptional phenomenon. If more people take from medieval history how difficult and slow it is to form an effective state and how fragile such a state can be, maybe they would be less hubristic and impatient in trying to create such states violently.